A new study has found that goats perform surprisingly well in a complex cognitive task, and that they also have a remarkable long-term memory. The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology yesterday.
Goats are very adaptable to harsh environments; their success in colonizing new habitats and forming large complex societies in the wild has led scientists to believe that they are capable of advanced cognition. Since domesticated animals experience more relaxed selection pressures in comparison to the wild, and domestication often leads to a decrease in brain size, it was assumed that this may have precipitated a reduction in social and physical cognition. Unlike dogs, which have mainly been domesticated for companionship and hunting, goats are not actively selected for particular cognitive traits. To test how these animals fared in both social and physical cognitive tasks and to investigate their long-term memory, domestic goats were assessed by a team of scientists from Queen Mary University of London using a complex two-step foraging task. To be more informative, ideally this study would have compared domestic goats with wild goats, but since they are not used to humans and would therefore likely be highly stressed, leading to a decrease in performance, this was not possible.
First, to investigate physical cognition abilities, the goats were trained to retrieve food from a puzzle box which involved a two-step process; they first had to pull out a lever either using their teeth or a rope, then they had to lift the lever using their mouths. This then resulted in the food reward being dropped into a bowl. Nine out of the 12 goats studied successfully learned this two-step task. Some goats learned the task without a demonstrator, and it was found that they learnt at the same speed as those with a demonstrator, suggesting that goats lack social learning by observation.
The image below shows the sequential steps necessary for the goat to retrieve the food.
Image credit: Queen Mary University of London
Next, to assess environmental intelligence, the long-term memory retention of the food box task was investigated at intervals ranging from 1 to 10 months. They found that there was no increase in time taken to solve the task over the increasing time intervals, suggesting that they were retaining the information. "The speed at which the goats completed the task at 10 months compared to how long it took them to learn indicates excellent long-term memory," said Dr Elodie Briefer, one of the authors of the study.
From these results, the researchers hypothesized that goat cognition is driven by the need to forage for difficult to reach plants in harsh environments. They also believe that they could explain why goats are accomplished at colonizing new environments. A follow-up study on wild goats would be useful to support these theories.